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Hell of a Ride on Third Avenue

Ray Milland under the El

Hell under the El: Ray Milland's Don Birnam

Have you ever wondered why Third Avenue has so many undistinguished postwar high rises? Or why the Third Avenue façade of Bloomingdale’s looks basically like a block-long warehouse. The answer is the Third Avenue El, which was not torn down until 1955. The elevated train, which dated back to 1878, made the avenue undesirable for real estate development. The same was true of the Second Avenue El, but it was demolished between 1940-42. Pressure from real estate interests to demolish the Third Avenue El began with the creation in 1941 of the Third Avenue Elevated Noise Abatement Committee, which consisted of what the New York Times described as “men in the real estate business.”

The negative effect that the Third Avenue El had on the character of the neighborhoods East of Lexington Avenue was captured for posterity in benchmark film, The Lost Weekend,

The Lost Weekend title frame

The 1945 classic was shot on location on the East Side

which opened at the Rivoli theater in November 1945. Directed by the great Billy Wilder, it stars Ray Milland as Don Birnam, a desperate alcoholic who goes on a five-day binge. The film won 1945 Oscars® for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. It was also nominated for Cinematography, Score and Editing.

The Lost Weekend, adapted from the novel by Charles Jackson, is an outstanding film in many ways, particularly the cinematography by John F. Seitz. It was one of the first studio films to use New York for extensive location photography. It offers a glimpse of what Third Avenue actually looked like in 1945.

Wilder pulled no punches in showing the degradation of his protagonist. The Birnam character is a failed writer and in a desperate attempt to get enough money for liquor, attempts to hock his typewriter in the pawn shops that lined seedy Third Avenue. Sietz’ camera captures Milland desperately staggering on harsh sun-lit streets past shuttered storefronts. The deep focus keeps the looming El in these scenes, adding to Birnam’s sense of claustrophobia. The trek, from 55th Street to 110th Street, was filmed on a quiet Sunday morning. According to Celluloid Skyline, New York and The Movies by James Sanders, “Wilder placed his cinematographer, John. F. Seitz, inside a packing crate just large enough to hold a man and a camera; other cameras were hidden in nearby bakery trucks and laundry vans.” Because the cameras were not visible, some takes were ruined when bystanders walked up to Milland and asked for an autograph.

Ray Milland and Third Ave. pawnshop

Birnam finds pawnshops shuttered on Yom Kippur

The scene in which Birnam finally asks a man why all the pawnshops are closed is a nice, New York touch. The character, who has a European accent and is carrying a prayer book, explains to him that it’s the Yom Kippur holiday.

Birnam’s neighborhood bar is called Nat’s in the film, but Wilder actually had Seitz shoot the scenes at PJ Clarke’s Saloon at 915 Third Avenue on 55th Street. Because it remains a low-rise building surrounded by modern skyscrapers, PJ Clarke’s in a true icon of old New York that has been updated only slightly over the years. Unfortunately, the noise from the El rendered many of the scenes unusable and the bar had to be carefully recreated, so that the scenes could be reshot in Hollywood. The dialog between Milland and Howard Da Silva, who plays the proprietor, Nat, is riveting. Birnam, describing how he feels, when he’s drunk, says, “out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer: it’s the Nile, Nat, the Nile — and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra.”

PJ Clarke's on Third Ave.

PJ Clarke's was called Nat's in the film

Another location is Bellevue Hospital, where Birnam ends up in the alcoholic’s ward. The interior was probably shot in the studio, but we see him escaping at dawn, in a robe and pajamas, on to First Avenue. In his autobiography, Wide-Eyed in Babylon, Milland reported that he spent a night at the hospital to prepare for his role. Also in the psychiatric ward that night were about 15 men, most of them (he was told) veterans of the advertising profession. One man was once a big city mayor. He was awakened by screams and swearing. Milland wrote, “Then from across the room a long undulating howl started, the sound coyotes make at night in the high deserts of Arizona.”

The Lost Weekend was shown recently on TCM; that’s where I saw it. I advise renting the DVD when you’re in the mood for something dark. This is film noir, without a murder.

Worth viewing on the Internet, is the award-winning documentary, 3rd Ave. El, which was nominated for an Oscar® in 1956. Producer-Director Carson Davidson takes you on a circa 1910 elevated car as it snakes along Third Avenue. You feel that you are along for the ride, looking at the other passengers and gazing out the open windows into surrounding neighborhoods and buildings. Blending surprisingly well with the images is the lively soundtrack, which consists of Wanda Landowska’s harpsichord recording. This film, like The Lost Weekend, is a gem that recaptures a piece of lost New York that is regarded with little fondness, but which shaped the city until the mid 1950s.

8 Comments

  1. barryblogs wrote:

    Thanks for reminding us that long before Billy Wilder’s scorching “Sunset Boulevard
    and his much heralded comedy, “Some Like It Hot”, he created a powerful depiction of desperation and addiction that had not been seen on the screen before—or perhaps since. “The Lost Weekend” holds up very well today. And as you point out, it’s all the more engaging set against a New York back-drop that has been lost to “gentrification”.

    Friday, February 4, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Permalink
  2. Chris Stromee wrote:

    An interesting look back at the 3rd Ave. El! Also, I had forgotten that it served as a backdrop in Lost Weekend. I will look for that El documentary. Thanks.

    Friday, February 4, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Permalink
  3. Andrew Kay wrote:

    Thank you, Chris. Just click on the link and you can view the documentary. No token necessary!

    Friday, February 4, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Permalink
  4. Mitch Wood wrote:

    Beautiful blog! Great historical & cultural montage. Sleek & slick, just like its subject and author. I took a ride on the 3rd Ave. El. Thanks for showing me how to get on board!

    Sunday, February 6, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Permalink
  5. DLM wrote:

    Loved reading about Third Avenue and the East Side. In fact, loved everything you have written about. So well thought through and interesting, including your own bio. Please keep blogging about great Icons of New York!

    Monday, February 14, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  6. Julio Vega wrote:

    Wow. I love your blog. Fascinating article and then taking a ride on the “3rd Ave. El” – what a treat!

    Thursday, February 24, 2011 at 2:55 am | Permalink
  7. Billy wrote:

    Thanks so much; a wonderful entry. One small correction: They wanted to film bar scenes in P.J. Clarke’s, but according to the biography of author Charles Jackson, the noise from the El and street traffic made that unfeasible, so they built a replica.

    Thursday, January 22, 2015 at 5:38 pm | Permalink
  8. Andrew Kay wrote:

    Thanks for this information. Of course, it makes sense that Paramount would have built a set for Clarke’s. The noise from the El must have been disruptive. And those scenes were particularly important. Glad you enjoyed the post!

    Wednesday, February 11, 2015 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

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